Home and away

24 06 2010

Yesterday I stood in for my colleague at the weekday parish eucharist and a home communion at one of the local retirement blocks. I was joined for both by the ordinand who has been on placement with us for the past few weeks. In the midst of all the discussions we’re having about the future and my expressions of anxiety if we revert to being too churchy in our current activity, it’s ironic that I found it enormously comforting to do some straightforward ‘vicaring’. Both services were simple, intimate and undemanding. I was able to step aside from all that’s going on in my head and be properly present to these two little groups of people and offer some straightforward sacramental ministry. I found a safe retreat in familiar, churchy stuff and perhaps more importantly with relaxed and, frankly, uncomplicated interaction with some appreciative people.

I had a similar experience conducting a funeral Monday lunchtime. It takes care and attention to lead a funeral well. But a lot of the time, it’s not difficult. I know what I’m doing. It feels like a privilege not a chore. And again, the family and friends of the lady we buried were appreciative.

In both these sorts of ministry encounter you get an immediate sense that you’re making a difference. And an immediate sense of satisfaction of a job well done. It’s not a challenge to work out what you need to do. You just need to do it well and with real presence and attention.

Part of me is not pioneering at all. Part of me, yearns for the comfort of the familiar, straightforward and instantly rewarding. I’m not sorry. It’s human. It’s normal. I just need to remember and make sure I’m not too quick to condemn others for feeling the same. We all enjoy the comforts of ‘home’.

I actually don’t know if I’m a natural pioneer or entrepreneur at all. But what has driven me to this sort of role is that I believe ‘home’ as we’ve known it is disappearing. The generation of people who would wish to have a home communion in their retirement flats complex is passing away. Passing away, of course, is what will ensure there are always funerals to conduct. But the number of people for whom a Church of England, even a Christian funeral will be relevant is also declining. And those are just symptoms of the bigger change – church just ain’t working for the majority of people. It isn’t even on their radar.

There is an argument that says that evangelical and charismatic churches are growing, so it’s all about church having a contemporary style and a clear message. But I don’t buy the argument. The evidence is much more mixed I think. Churches of all traditions are experiencing decline (and growth). And at the end of the day, whether it’s happy clappy or smells and bells, a significant and growing proportion of the population just ain’t interested.

It’s easy to get depressed about all that. But I think this is a providential moment for the Church to experience growth in depth. To rediscover its roots and find that home isn’t all about the familiar building and the familiar religious trappings – be they fuddy-duddy or ersatz contemporary, it’s about being alongside others as they and we encounter the mystery we call God in our lives. It will ask us to give up our settled existence and become a pilgrim people again, finding that wherever we are ‘away’, we’re home because we’re there with the One who calls us out of the immediate comforts of Ur to find new life in new places.

In that situation, we will, I’m sure find that some of our trappings are invested with new depth, meaning and vitality and that some are left aside. As a community, the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s, of which I am a part, is right in the middle of that process of re/discovery. We’ve pushed ourselves out beyond our comfort zone and found that there are some things we can’t do without just at the moment. But it is a moment and I’m beginning again to dare to hope that in the midst of all this, we will forge some genuinely new and most importantly authentic-for-our-locality ways of being and journeying with God.





Sursum corda

5 01 2010

With my colleague’s permission, I’ve posted a copy of a brief email exchange we had over the liturgy for Christmas Day. As we had no Christmas Day service in the Sunday Sanctuary, I was presiding at St Peter’s. We were discussing the opening lines to the Eucharistic Prayer, known as the sursum corda. It is optional in Common Worship, the Church of England’s authorised liturgy whether to start with either:

  • ‘The Lord is here’, to which all respond: ‘His Spirit is with us’; or:
  • ‘The Lord be with you’, to which all respond: ‘And also with you’.

Here’s wot I writ:

I’ve generally preferred ‘The Lord is here’ because I’ve wondered whether the repetition of ‘the Lord be with you/and also with you’ through more catholic liturgy that I’ve experienced doesn’t focus attention on the priest and the people responding to her/him rather than on God and her presence with us. Any thoughts?

Alex responded:

With a catholic theology of the sacrament, to say ‘The Lord is here…’ immediately before the prayer of consecration seems a little previous…! That’s why I guess Protestants prefer to score the opposite point by saying that the ‘Lord is [already] here’, because they think that nothing actually happens to the elements in the eucharistic prayer (there is no ‘consecration’). Though of course all agree that the Lord is here always.

I think for me ‘The Lord be with you’, usually used at the start of the mass, before the reading of the Gospel, before the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the blessing, has an almost contractual – or better ‘covenental’ – function in establishing that the Lord is present in the whole community of God’s priestly people gathered for worship, but who collectively acknowledge the particular role of the ordained priest to preside on behalf of all in the Lord’s name. The ordained priest begins, as it were, by saying that the priesthood belongs to everybody, then everyone passes it back, so to speak.

Why should any of you reading this be interested in the finer points of Anglican liturgy. I guess if you are, you are and if not, then this isn’t going to set your heart-a-racing! And why am I posting this on a blog that puports to be about mission at the cutting edge? Well because that mission, as far as I am involved in it, is still Anglican mission. We can’t escape questions of liturgy, even if we’d like to. Personally, I wouldn’t like to (escape questions of liturgy). If anything they’re all the more pronounced when we’re outside the familiar territory. Because as much as I’m not in the business of fostering worship-shaped church, but mission-shaped church, that doesn’t mean there’s no worship!

Anyway, this little exchange helped me to understand the eucharist and priesthood from a more catholic perspective. Something I’ve explored quite a bit in my training but there‘s always more to learn. I’d welcome anybody else’s thoughts on this…





Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.

3 10 2009

1187877_pile_of_books__1As well as the million and one other things I have to do this Autumn, I am finally making some substantial progress with my MA dissertation. I am studying for a Master of Arts in Theology for Christian Ministry and Mission with STETS.

Originally I had planned for my MA dissertation to track and evaluate the process of discernment I had outlined before taking up my post. The research aspect of the dissertation would have come from the ethnography I was planning to undertake in each of the potential mission contexts I identified. The trouble was firstly that I struggled to find time alongside this work to make progress on the dissertation. And secondly as I spent time in each setting, it was decreasingly recognisable as research and more like the raw stuff of mission. I don’t approach these places as a research student but as a christian priest. I’ve written elsewhere on why that might tend to make one a poor researcher.

There is a proper place for listening and observing as one enters new realms of human experience, but I have also felt the need to attempt to bring something real and positive into each place I come to – to make a contribution to the life I encounter from the outset of that encounter.

So as I pick up my dissertation again after summer break, I need to rethink how I might attack it. I still want to focus on discernment as it seems to me that this is a key charism for pioneers as they found and lead new missional communities and embark in new forms if mission. If our task is to participate in the mission of God in the world, we need to be able to discern what God might be doing where we are. And we need to be able to discern how we are being called to participate.

It just so happens that this coincides with the St Luke’s PCC taking a decision on my proposal to relocate our Sunday gathering in one of the nearby tower blocks and to change the nature of what we do. With the encouragement of my colleague, I introduced some Ignatian style prayer to the proceedings. Each participant was given a sheet that invited them to write down what excited them and what concerned them about the proposal. We then took a turn to share our concerns, and then again to share our excitement. Writing first meant that we were more likely to listen to each other instead of mentally preparing our contribution while others were speaking. Then we went away on our own for a few minutes to silently reflect and pray on what we’d learnt. I suggested people might want to imagine themselves in the scene of Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well from John 4. They could imagine themselves as the woman or as an observer. I asked them to focus on the moment when Jesus says ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ and hold a conversation with him in their imagination about what that means for us now.

There are deep, deep wells in the Christian tradition, offering spiritual practices of discernment. The Jesuit (Ignatian) tradition is very strong on this, but it occurs to me that there are other approaches too. There are more ecstatic approaches to discernment in the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions for instance. I have begun to delve a bit deeper to see what else there is in the tradition. I am looking at the Desert Fathers and Benedict. I will take a look at Richard Hooker and perhaps the more recent experience of Indaba groups at the Lambeth conference.

Given that discernment is so important, I wondered how well prepared pioneer ministers are for approaching those moments. I wasn’t trained on the pioneer track – I came to this mode of ministry later. But when you take a look at the guidance on starting a fresh expression of church, for instance, prayer is mentioned as something one would naturally want to do, but that’s where it stops. If we ask the question of the Christian tradition, ‘Are there ways of praying that will help us to discern our calling?’, then the answer is clearly yes.

There are of course, other important moments in the process of discerning a way forward. But if we are to go beyond something that looks a lot like market research, there surely has to be a strong spirituality component. I have a sense that the managerialism that John Millbank decries in his incendiary ‘Stale expressions: the management-shaped church’ is somewhat evident in the way pioneer ministers (including myself) are encouraged and so do conceive of the new form of church/mission that might be appropriate for their context. (His critique goes deeper than that, of course.)

So I am now working towards researching the question of the extent to which pioneer ministers reach their decisions by drawing on those spiritual practices of discernment from the tradition.

Here’s my working title:
Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.
To what extent have spiritual practices of discernment from the Christian tradition informed four Anglican pioneer ministers as they have engaged in the process of determining their response to their particular mission context?

And here’s the first paragraph of my draft proposal:

This author contends that those appointed ‘pioneer’ by the Church of England are not as well versed in the spiritual practices of discernment that the Christian tradition has to offer as might be helpful or appropriate in the exercise of their ministry. It could be instructive for the development of initial and ongoing pioneer ministerial training and formation to test this hypothesis. It may also yield insights into the appropriateness of particular spiritual practices of discernment for the particular situations into which pioneer ministers are sent. The proposed research could thus begin to indicate both the need for, and the content of, an additional component of ministerial formation.

I am proposing to examine my own practice and that of three other volunteers (victims?) and to test this hypothesis. I will make contact with as many of the training institutions as I can to see whether spiritual practices of discernment are part of their curricula and I hope to keep a conversation going here as I discover more.

If anyone out there in the blogosphere is interested in taking part – as one of my interviewees perhaps – I’d be really pleased to speak to you. If you just want to share your experience through commenting on this post or others that follow, I’d be really grateful to receive that input too.





Pioneer, pastor or manager?

24 09 2009

748066_ihs_iiMark Berry started an interesting discussion recently. He was expressing a degree of frustration at the extent to which he finds himself having to engage in managerial and pastoral tasks when he really wants to be pioneering. I know how Mark feels. And I too appreciate his honesty. The whole idea of creating a new ministry stream was to set innovators free from the administrative and pastoral responsibilities of parochial ministry so that they’re free to experiment and spark off new forms of mission.

It’s maybe a bit ironic then that it was reported recently in the Church press that there are lots of people who have trained as ordained pioneer ministers who have been unable to find pioneer appointments. For some, I’m guessing, that’s because they’re looking for a ready-made fresh expression of church to look after. And I’m not dissing them for that. We need people like them. These will be the people that will release the really adventurous mission entrepreneurs to move on and try something new. But I think calling these people ‘pioneer ministers’ is muddying the waters a bit. Maybe ‘pastor to an established mission community’ is more descriptive if a little challenged on the catchiness front. The majority of those people will be ordained, I guess, especially if those communities are to receive sacramental ministry — pretty fundamental to any recognisably Anglican ecclesiology.

Mark Berry often wonders out loud about the necessity of ordination. He often talks about ‘models’ of ministry and ‘models’ of church. So do I. But I am decreasingly comfortable using this language. It suggests that the forms of ministry we have inherited were established as pragmatically determined forms that got stuck. That’s a very post/evangelical perspective, I think. The more I engage with thinking from a more catholic perspective, the less satisfied I am with approaches that ignore the ‘Tradition’, by which I mean the received form of the church. I am a pioneer through and through but I don’t think I’m free to ignore the Tradition. In my view it’s as important a source of authority within Christian faith and practice as any other — including Scripture. I want therefore to face up to the deeply searching questions that it asks of the emerging church, fresh expressions and pioneer ministry. That doesn’t mean I am ready to give up the adventure of reimagining mission and ministry for the 21st century but neither does it mean I can ignore the deep insights and experience of the previous centuries.

So, much as I think the Incarnation should inspire us to fashion indigenous forms of church, I also want to affirm that any ecclesial community is a local expression of the church catholic. Catholicity is something I am taking increasingly seriously. And the holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon are part of what ensures we are genuinely connected to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I’m attracted by Mark’s idea of ordination for a time and a place but I think it reduces ordination to something functional and ignores the ontological dimension of priesthood particularly that has been part of the traditional understanding.

But then of course, I would say that wouldn’t I? I’m part of that cadre of religious ‘professionals’. But once you’ve had your consciousness awakened to a hermeneutic of suspicion, you can’t just switch it off. And that was a feature of my critical education. So I can see the bid for power that nestles inside that particular theological assertion. I have a lot of sympathy with George Bernard Shaw’s description of professions as a ‘conspiracy against the laity’. Actually I think ordained ministers of every order should see themselves as amateurs in the true sense of that word. Colloquially ‘amateur’ has connotations of operating at a low standard of competence. But at its root it means people who do something for love. It’s only then that the distinction between a stipend and a salary makes sense.

So as an ordained pioneer minister I think I cannot escape, so easily as Mark might, the broad set of responsibilities my ordination as priest entails. That includes ‘sustain[ing] the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.’ So even if there’s an extent to which as an ordained pioneer minister pastoral care might be less of a priority than for a parish priest, it’s not a responsbility I can expect to evade entirely. And neither would I want to. I think it would be deeply hurtful to found a new community without seeing through at least some of that early fragile period by offering a degree of care and nurture to its members.

And when it comes to administration, I am minded to remember that I am a clerk in holy orders. Again there’s a different balance to be struck. But I don’t think it’s legitimate to confine ourselves to what we like doing. We don’t want pioneers to be demotivated by overburdensome administration. But neither do we want to train people who are unrealistic about the need to get stuck in with doing some boring stuff from time to time. Because it’s often necessary to do that hard groundwork in order to release the vision we’ve had.

I spent part of my week working on a hall hire agreement. Part of my role includes helping a struggling parish congregation to find a renewed engagement in mission. That parish includes some buildings that are the main source of income for the parish.

Part of the struggle for this congregation has been finding resources of time among themselves for the oversight of what is effectively a business. It wouldn’t be a viable business if you took a cold, hard look at it. But it provides funds that would otherwise be difficult to find.

I am temporarily plugging a gap by doing some of this work (though it has to be said that my colleague Alex, who is actually Priest-in-Charge of the parish, has taken the lion’s share of this sort of admin). I don’t intend to do it indefinitely. But doing it now is part of a strategy for getting everything on a surer footing going forward.

And getting things off the ground — pioneering — isn’t ever, I think, just about dreaming dreams. There is always some hard grind and detailed work to do to make the dream a reality. We don’t all necessarily have to be completer-finishers but we do need to be able to see some things through to the end. If we are truly pioneering, starting things from scratch, then it’s inevitable that there won’t be enough people to ensure that nobody has to work outside their comfort zones. Now we might argue that pioneering puts us permanently outside of a comfort zone. There’s some truth in that but there’s also a degree to which we might be letting ourselves off the hook a bit too easily. On the frontier is kind of a natural home for mavericks. Being systematic, methodical, institutional — all those things are probably much more outside of a comfort zone for entrepreneuring types. But if the analogy is business, then you only need to watch Dragons Den to know that you have to do a bit more solid work than dreaming up a great idea to actually get the money!

So in the end, I think pioneer ministry inevitably does mean getting our hands dirty with both pastoral care and even in the grubbiness of management.





The doctor is in

10 06 2009

surgery-invitationAnd my surgery opens tomorrow morning. Between 10 A.M. and 12 noon tomorrow I’ll be in the Community Room in Wilmcote House, just hanging around with some coffee on the go, waiting to talk to anyone about anything. They will hopefully know I’m there thanks to a pair of very kind and helpful members of the St Luke’s  congregation, both residents of Wilmcote House, who have been out today posting invitation leaflets – not just in Wilmcote House but in other blocks too. Here’s what the leaflets said:

Hello, I’m Mark Rodel, Associate Priest in the parish of St Luke, Somers Town. I’ll be in the Community Room in Wilmcote House between 10 A.M. and midday on Thursday mornings in June. Come and have a cup of coffee with me and talk about whatever you like. I’m happy to have just a general chat about anything. Maybe you want to talk about baptism for you or a member of your family; to find help praying about something that’s troubling you or to help you celebrate something good that’s going on for you. Perhaps there’s some question about Christian faith you’ve always wanted to ask. I can’t promise to have all the answers but I can promise to listen. I’m here for you. I’d be really pleased to meet you. I’ll also be here on Sundays in June with the St Luke’s congregation for our Sunday worship. You’d be very welcome to join us at 11 A.M.

I’ll let you know if anyone came and what happened tomorrow. I’m trying not to get too excited that two people have already said to our leaflet distributors that they will join us on Sunday morning. I’d better make sure it’s both accessible and unmissable. Not too much pressure then!